A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 549 – Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko – August 31st, 2011

Gee whiz am I glad that I didn’t see this movie when it came out. Not because it’s a bad movie. On the contrary. But at the time it came out I was still dealing with some pretty nasty depression and let me tell you! This movie would not have inspired me to look on the bright side of life. In fact, at the end of it I watched the credits and thought “Well. What a great movie to convince people the exact opposite of It’s a Wonderful Life!” Maybe that wasn’t the outright intent, but it’s certainly a large chunk of what I got out of it.

The movie revolves around a young man named Donnie. He’s had some troubled times in the past year or so. Or maybe longer. I got the impression that it wasn’t more than a year, but not much less either. The movie doesn’t bother to make it clear and that’s okay, because ultimately it doesn’t matter how long he’s been having trouble. What’s important is that just recently he’s started sleepwalking and having hallucinations of a giant grey rabbit. Or a man in a giant grey rabbit suit. Either way. The rabbit’s name is Frank and Frank tells Donnie that the world is going to end soon. In 28 days. And he has things he needs to do. And so Donnie does them. The prior troubles Donnie’s had involved setting an abandoned house on fire and getting suspended and having to see a psychiatrist and take medication, which he doesn’t want to take. And it would be one thing for this movie to be about a teenage boy having a psychotic break and not knowing what’s real or not. It’s an entirely different thing when his sleepwalking and hallucinations keep him out of the house when a jet engine appears out of nowhere and falls right through his bedroom ceiling, crushing where he would have been.

It’s an event like that which lends credence to a paranoid mind’s obsessions. With Frank’s encouragement Donnie floods the school and sets fire to another house. He worries his parents and fights with his sister. At home he seems to be a typical teenage guy. I knew plenty of teenage guys who fought with their parents and acted out. Most of them did not go on to perpetrate enormous property damage. They also weren’t hallucinating and starting to believe in time travel. So, that’s where they and Donnie differ. Anyhow, Donnie’s kind of obsessed with this whole idea of time travel and that he’s seeing things like trails showing the paths people will take. He’s still seeing Frank and Frank is still incredibly creepy. His psychiatrist is growing alarmed at his talk about Frank and the end of the world and his parents are perplexed, unsure of just what to do. Meanwhile, Donnie’s leading sort of a double life. He hangs out with his friends and gets himself a girlfriend – the new-to-town Gretchen Ross – and when he’s not seeing paths or Frank or causing destruction he appears “normal.”

It’s an odd movie, really. Because one could take it as a commentary on the nature of teen angst. It’s full of things like unrequited crushes and bullies and school officials being pressured to fire staff members for their reading list choices. It’s got a smarmy self-help guru the gym teacher’s bought into and Donnie’s a middle child with a cool older sister who’s going to Harvard and a cute younger sister who’s a dance team champ. And there’s Donnie, who had to miss some school and see a shrink and take pills. Of course he’s angry and angsty. And through it all the movie has an almost dream-like quality. It’s early autumn and school’s just starting for the year and Donnie’s not quite entirely present in reality 100% of the time. Thinking back on it now I have this impression that many things happened in slow motion even though I know it can’t be as much of the movie as I’m thinking.

The movie’s ending, which is where the time travel really comes in, is one of those endings that one could take in several different ways. It could be a time paradox, or it could be an alternate reality or it could have been imaginary or it could be all three. I know for a fact Andy interpreted it differently than I did and I hadn’t really considered his interpretation and it’s entirely possible that had I not spoken during the credits he wouldn’t have considered mine. On one hand, that sort of writing can come off as hopelessly pretentious. On the other, if handled well I think it can work without making the viewer feel baffled. And I think this movie handles it well largely because there’s enough material in the movie to work with. And that says to me that the people making the movie considered what people might interpret it as, instead of just being mysterious and hoping people made up their own meanings.

Personally, while I’m not about to tell anyone that I’m right and they’re wrong, my initial interpretation of the movie’s end is rather bleak. Well, bleak for Donnie. I meant what I said about the movie feeling like an anti-It’s a Wonderful Life. With the engine falling on Donnie instead of Donnie being out with Frank when his bedroom is crushed, it changes everything. But instead of seeing what the world would be like without Donnie, we see what it’s like with him. Sure, at least one person gets what’s coming to him, but other innocent people get hurt. Without Donnie around causing trouble the school wouldn’t flood. People wouldn’t die. So Donnie dies. And when he does the ripples through the timeline are felt by all the people affected.

It does leave the question of Frank’s identity and importance and just how he came to be Donnie’s hallucination rather up in the air. But then most interpretations probably would. Certainly the real Frank seems affected by Donnie’s death, but up until the end he didn’t seem to have much of any connection with Donnie. He was just an artist, making a twisted mask for Halloween. Who is he? Who was he? Why did Donnie see him? I don’t know. And to be honest, I prefer not knowing. I like the idea that there’s something supernatural and mysterious at work in this movie. I like the idea that regardless of the science discussed and the technical aspects of time travel, there’s something unknowable at work. For much the same reason I love that the movie is set in the 1980s. Why is it set in the 80s? Who cares? It just is. And it suits the movie. It’s not an overt stereotype of a movie. It’s a sci-fi supernatural period piece. Which works. And apparently it works for people in vastly different ways. And I like that too.

August 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Donnie Darko

August 31, 2011

Donnie Darko

I bought this movie because I was reassured by a wide range of people how unbelievably messed up it was. And, yes, it is a strange, what with its dreamlike daze state, time travel and visions of the future. It’s more than just random weirdness though. It’s probably the quintessential movie about teen angst – and I have to admit that I absolutely love it even though I was in my thirties when I first saw it.

Donnie is a troubled teen. There’s nothing in particular wrong with his life – his family is a typical eighties yuppie clan. He goes to a clean looking school with your typical mix of wasters, pretty people and rejects. He’s prone to sleepwalking. He’s in therapy and medicated because of a senseless act of arson he committed a couple years ago. For some reason he finds himself compelled to do things and he doesn’t know why.

Then things start to get weird.

An extremely creepy rabbit named Frank appears to Donnie and tells him that the end of the world is just 28 days away. The detached engine from a jet airliner crashes through the roof of his house and into his bedroom while he is out sleepwalking. Donnie proceeds to drift farther and farther out of touch with the world, while at the same time he finds himself caught up in some kind of time-travel paradox. There’s a sense that some of his actions are predestined – he can almost see what people are going to do before they do it, and his own actions feel like something he has no control over.

On the one hand he’s being forced by the voice of Frank to do some things that are dangerous and destructive. Such as flooding the school by smashing a water pipe with an axe or burning down the palatial estate of a loathsome self-help guru. He finds himself getting his father’s gun from his closet. He takes a knife to the bathroom to try to break through an invisible wall to reach Fred.

At school Donnie becomes prone to outbursts. He talks back to his gym teacher during an insipid ethics class based on the work of a self made guru named Jim Cunningham who offers thin platitudes and sells advice about the eternal battle between love and fear. Strangely only Donnie seems to realize that Jim is a scam artist who is lining his pockets by selling his courses and lectures to the school.

Everything builds to the climactic moment where it is revealed why Frank has been haunting Donnie and why he has the bunny suit. There’s time-travel involved and a convergence of multiple plot lines in an instant that has been pre-destined since the beginning of the movie. Which is cool and all, but it’s not really the point of the movie for me.

Okay – some spoilers now. Donnie dies at the end of the film, which wraps back around to the beginning so that all the events of the movie are shown to be an alternative universe. My interpretation of the movie is that what we get to see of Donnie’s life is a sort of idealised wish fulfilment. Before he dies he gets to see what life would be like if he came out of his shell and did the sorts of things that teenaged boys wish they could get away with doing. he floods the school. He talks back to teachers. He gets the girl. he knows the answers. It’s sort of one last hurrah for him because everything comes crashing down and he has to accept his fate.

This movie is so layered and complex that it necessitates multiple viewings. It could be read as Donnie coming to grips with his fear of death and accepting that death is not such a dreadful fate. Or you could view it as wish fulfilment as I do. Of you could see it as an exploration of multiple parallel universes. I enjoy the fact that it’s ambiguous enough to be open for interpretation.

No matter how you chose to understand the film it cannot be denied that it’s wonderfully made. Richard Kelly, who went on to direct that utterly impossible to describe Southland Tales, directs here with flare and panache. This movie combines a fever-dream feel accomplished with muted sounds, cool digital effects, and lots of manipulation of the film speed with a more normal feel at times. There are lots of scenes that are very slickly edited together with intercut views of different unrelated events which heighten the tension. There are parts of the movie that feel almost like a horror film (one of my favorite moments is when Donnie is hypnotised by his therapist and is describing his terror at the impending end of the world and he looks up and sees Frank right there in the room with them. “I see him right now!” he exclaims and chills run down my spine.)

There’s a great cast of talented actors from Drew Barrymore to Mary McDonnell to Patrick Swayze. Jake Gyllenhaal really steals the show though as Donnie himself. he’s so sinister and sullen, so dangerously hard to read. You get a sense that his family and therapist don’t just not understand him – they fear him a little. It’s a fantastic performance full of desperation and pain.

Add to all that an absolutely astonishing soundtrack. Every song here is so perfectly suited for the tone and feel of the movie – even more impressive given that some of the music is apparently last minute replacements for temp tracks that the producers couldn’t secure the rights to. It makes me want to download the soundtrack right now (although in truth I don’t tend to buy compilation albums – I’m more likely to buy all the original albums the songs came from. I need more Tears for Fears and Duran Duran on my iPhone.)

The world needs more slick, inscrutable, inspired movies like this. Any movie that forces you to think about it as much as this one does for me it a big plus in my book. And of course the creepy bunny mask that Frank wears will be forever burnt into your mind once you have seen this. “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”

August 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment